Avalanche kills 2 skiers in Montana

January 14, 2008 7:44:26 AM PST
A huge avalanche near Whitefish Mountain Resort killed two backcountry skiers and searchers combed the slide area for two other possible victims. Three other people were killed over the weekend in a separate avalanche in Wyoming.

Emergency responders were alerted around noon Sunday to the avalanche on Fiberglass Hill, a popular recreation area on the opposite side of the mountain from the resort. More than 100 search and rescue people were quickly called to the scene.

The search was called off overnight because of encroaching fog and an overhanging ridge of snow that still hadn't cut loose and could be dangerous to the rescue teams, Flathead County Sheriff Mike Meehan said. It was to resume Monday.

"They're going to be going out this morning and checking the area to see if it's safe to do a search, because there's still part of the avalanche that's hanging," sheriff's dispatcher Laura Wester said Monday morning.

The snowmobilers who reported the avalanche said they saw two victims killed in the slide, as well as two other skiers caught in the snow lower down in the canyon.

"They absolutely confirm that they saw two more skiers get swallowed up," Meehan told the Missoulian newspaper late Sunday. "However, we still don't have two people who are reported missing." He described the avalanche as "massive."

The area is U.S. Forest Service land, outside of resort boundaries, said Donnie Clap, spokesman for Whitefish Mountain Resort.

"We set off explosions to mitigate the (avalanche) risk within our boundaries," he said. "When you ski out of bounds, you are really taking your life in your own hands."

"We're just distraught over this tragedy," he said. "It's been really hard on all of us."

In Wyoming, three men were killed Saturday when they were caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Star Valley south of Jackson.

The Star Valley Search and Rescue team found the men's bodies in the Cottonwood Lake area later Saturday. Authorities say Scott Bennett, Alan Jensen and Kim Steed were all from the Afton area.

Avalanches have killed at least 21 people across the West since Dec. 2, according to the National Avalanche Center. The national annual average for avalanche deaths is about 25. Thirty-five people were killed nationwide in avalanches in the 2001-2002 season, the most on record, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

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